The Truth

I’m guessing that many of you are not familiar with data visualization expert Stephen Few.  However, you probably do know who Martin Tyler and Ian Darke are (even if you forget their names before the end of the year). Stephen Few has one thing in common with the other two, and I admire them all for the same reason: they aren’t afraid to tell the truth.

Martin Tyler and Ian Darke are English football commentators (that’s soccer for us Americans).  They were hired by ABC / ESPN to broadcast the 2010 World Cup from South Africa.  Millions of Americans (and others around the world) were thrilled and captivated by Darke’s breathless call of Landon Donovan’s late goal against Algeria that moved the U.S. team on to the next round.

Throughout the World Cup (and, I’m sure, in their regular broadcasts of the English Premier League), these announcers are honest and direct in their assessment of the players and the officials.  After a disputed call in the game between Slovenia and the U.S., Darke called it “one of the stupidest decisions I’ve ever seen.”  Tyler described a disastrous mistake by the English goalkeeper as “one of the softest goals you’ll ever see at this level of football.  It doesn’t often happen in schoolboy play.”  Other memorable quotes from commentators throughout the tournament included “Mexico is right to be indignant – a huge injustice” and “No need for that – very ridiculous.”

Stephen Few operates in a completely different arena.  Data visualization is the science of communicating information clearly and effectively through graphical means.  He emphasizes clarity and simplicity.  In fact, the home page of his company website, Perceptual Edge, includes scholarly quotes about simplicity from Henry David Thoreau, Leonardo da Vinci, and English mathematician Alfred North Whitehead.

Few comments frequently on charts, graphs, and dashboards presented by the media, advertisers, and by Business Intelligence (BI) vendors.  In those comments, he pulls no punches.  When he thinks something is bad (which happens a lot), he says it’s bad.  More importantly, he supports his scorn with a detailed critique describing exactly why it’s ineffective and how it could be improved.  As an added bonus, he writes clearly, filling his detailed explanations with well-placed sarcasm.  [I have to admit – I’m a huge fan of well-placed sarcasm!]

Quotes from Few on his firm’s website are just as direct as those from the English football commentators:

  • “How can a vendor that claims to understand data and presumes to teach people best practices in its use know so little? Oracle, you should be embarrassed.”
  • “I don’t blame MicroStrategy’s customers. They’re working within the constraints of the tool and emulating impoverished examples, which is probably all they’ve ever seen. I mostly blame the folks at MicroStrategy, who should know better.”
  • “SAP BusinessObjects and most other Big BI companies haven’t taken the time to understand data sense-making in general, data visualization in particular, or even the real needs of their customers.”

Too often, broadcasters and commentators share a timid streak with analysts and consultants. They’re reluctant to criticize anyone.  Maybe they fear legal reprisals.  Maybe they’re hesitant to offend a potential future client.  Maybe they’re too closely tied to the people or subjects they’re commenting on.  Maybe it’s a combination of all of those.  In any case, it’s a shame.  The very experts we’d like to rely on for truth don’t deliver—instead they give us sugar-coated platitudes.

In contrast, Stephen Few, Martin Tyler, and Ian Darke provide refreshing honesty and frankness.  I wish there were more like them.

For now…I’ll leave you with this thought:

Don’t be wishy-washy—tell the truth.

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